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Gun range foes could get wildlife survey

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[UPDATE 4-21 — The MWRD board voted 9-to-0 this morning to request a wildlife study for the area including the land proposed for a police firing range.]

Environmental activists opposing construction of a police firing range [2] on the Southeast Side could get approval for a long-requested wildlife study at a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District meeting tomorrow.

The MWRD board will vote Thursday morning (April 21) on a motion to request a wildlife study by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on a140-acre area south of 134th, said commissioner Debra Shore.

Last year the board gave preliminary approval to a proposal to lease a portion of the area to the City of Chicago for construction of an outdoor firing range for use by Chicago and area police officers.

Local environmental groups argued that the gun range would disturb migratory birds in wetlands on the MWRD land and north of it in Hegewisch Marsh, where the city planned a major nature center.   The areas are part of the Calumet Open Space Reserve designated by the city several years ago.  Two ponds on the MWRD property are designated as National Wetlands.

The wildlife study would be “just a matter of due diligence on our part as the landowner,” said Shore.

It would also be “a big victory for the rank and file, for grassroots people,” said Carolyn Marsh, conservation chair of the Chicago Audubon Society [3].  “I wish it weren’t such a struggle to get what is just common sense.”

Marsh has been persistently pressing for a wildlife survey since she accompanied biologists from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on a walk-through of the area requested by the Southeast Environmental Task Force [4] last summer.

IDNR reported it was “unable to determine” whether state protected species might be nesting in the area, and gave its approval to the project.  But nests of two significant though unprotected species, great egrets and great blue herons, were seen in trees nearby.

“When I saw those birds I said by gosh, we’re going to fight this,” Marsh said.

She kept digging and found an IDNR survey which found 139 nests of the endangered black crowned night heron on the site in 1985 – which had failed to turn up in an IDNR data base search for evidence of endangered species.

The Audubon Society maintains that even without evidence of endangered species, construction and operation of a firing range would violate the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by harassing the egrets and blue herons.

“That’s how species become endangered, because we’re continually encroaching on their habitat,” said Peggy Salazar, executive director of SETF.

SETF maintains the firing range is inappropriate in the open space reserve, which the city has recognized as the most significant wetland and natural area in the city.

MWRD still has to give final approval to the project after the city finalizes the plan and the City Council votes on it, Shore said.